Monday, February 16, 2009

Revisiting The Vietnam War From Ho Chi Minh City

It's a 75-kilometre journey from the heart of Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City northwest to the Cu Chi tunnels, and our bus has to weave through a mass of status symbol motorbikes (with those made in Japan at the top, Korea in the middle and China at the bottom of the scale) on the crowded streets and pass both bustling construction sites and women holding live ducks and chickens to sell on the curbside.

This taste of the hectic city of about eight million people (and formerly known as Saigon) in the southeastern part of the country eventually gives way to the countryside, where the soil is improving but harvests are still less than what they should be because of all the chemicals remaining in the ground from the war in the '60s and '70s. Rubber trees are the biggest agricultural product in the area, which includes a war memorial and the burial place of 4,000 Vietnamese soldiers that we stop at briefly on the way to the tunnels that were used as a key base of operations for the 1968 Tet Offensive by Viet Cong troops.

The tunnels began in 1948 and about 200 kilometres of them were connected to one another by 1965. A small portion have now been opened up to visitors as a tourist attraction to show the key role they played in housing and transporting people and supplies during the war between the communists from the north and the American-backed people of the south. They included wells, sleeping chambers, kitchens, storage areas, conference rooms and hospitals and were largely equipped with materials scavenged or stolen from U.S. troops based on top of them. Those living below would usually spend their days working or resting and emerge at night through camouflaged trap doors to tend crops or engage in covert military activities.

Upon arrival at the visitor centre, we're shown a short documentary on how the three levels of tunnels were used and how people became heroes for becoming adept "American killers." We were then shown large bomb craters and examples of below-ground booby-traps utilizing bamboo spikes or whatever else could be found and assembled to inflict damage on enemy forces.

We were invited to go through a first-level tunnel, which required some bending over, but wasn't too taxing. The second-level tunnel had a very small entrance that even a relatively short and slim person like myself could barely fit through. Some people in our group couldn't make it and others didn't even attempt it. It was dark, but the journey below was pretty short.

The third-level tunnel, however, was definitely an adventure. I found that crab-walking was the easiest way to get through the tiny lower passages, especially a few where bats brushed my scalp as they flew by. After 20 minutes, I emerged sweaty, dirty and a bit dizzy.

I couldn't imagine staying there for prolonged periods, even in this gentrified state without as many insects and the rampant malaria outbreaks that would sweep through the tunnels. Life was harsh — with little air, food or water — but people survived and kept the war going against superior forces that could do little to stop them.

We were then given tea and raw tapioca, which grows in the area and which I discovered I enjoy much more as a pudding ingredient.

I declined the opportunity to choose from a range of assault rifles that could be fired at targets for five dollars for five bullets — the same price I paid for admission to the tunnel complex. I was here to learn about the hardships and horrors of war, not to pretend I was taking part in one.

I walked around the grounds — which include old army tanks, shells, bombs and a rudimentary zoo with caged monkeys, porcupines and boa constrictors — and stopped to talk to some U.S. Vietnam war veterans who were also visiting. While this was a moving experience for me, it was much more so for them, and some were moved to tears in recounting their experiences.

After returning to Ho Chi Minh City in the afternoon, my quest to find out more about the war firsthand took me to the government-operated War Remnants Museum. It features eight themed rooms and a walled yard featuring weapons, tanks, planes, helicopters, recreations of the "tiger cage" cells used by the South Vietnamese government and a room dedicated to the anti-war protests that happened around the world.

There was also a tribute to photojournalists who were killed while covering the war. Most stirring were the photos taken by these brave men and women who risked their lives to document the atrocities committed by both sides. There were also numerous disturbing shots of what happened to the victims of U.S. chemical warfare.

The third and final stop of my exploration of the war around Ho Chi Minh City took me to the Reunification Palace, the home and workplace of the South Vietnamese president during the hostilities. It was also the site of the official handover of power during the capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese army on April 30, 1975 that ended the war.

The palace is open to the public today, and I took a one-hour guided tour conducted in English by a young woman. We were shown basement tunnels, conference rooms, the presidential receiving room, the telecommunications centre and the war room as well as living quarters during the enlightening and educational session, which was followed by a documentary on the building and the war.

It's hard to imagine the horrors that went on in Vietnam less than 35 years ago when encountering the people who seem so friendly and helpful today. A lot has changed in the country in a hurry, almost all of it for the better, but it's important not to forget the past so mistakes made then don't reoccur.